WolfBrown: On Our Minds

Several weeks ago in Columbus, Ohio, a group of leaders in the jazz field gathered together to consider the results of WolfBrown’s new study of jazz audiences commissioned by Jazz Arts Group. The Columbus Foundation supported the convening, and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation supported the study. We are just now putting the finishing touches on the three research reports, which include: 1) a multi-site analysis of jazz ticket buyers; 2) a segmentation model for jazz ticket buyers; and 3) a segmentation model for jazz prospects (i.e., music lovers who do not attend jazz concerts with any frequency). Later this month, we will provide information about how to access these studies and details of a public webinar on October 21 at 3:00 p.m. EDT to review the results.

As researchers, we always struggle with how to engineer “uptake” of new knowledge. The great fallacy is that results of a major study can be summarized in a 90-minute presentation, after which the consultant goes away and the client is left to “implement” the findings. Oh, that it were so simple. In reality, the “end” of a research project is really just the beginning of a longer process of absorption, reflection, consideration and, hopefully, action. The pathway between research and action, however, is often long and unpredictable. Sometimes it takes three or four exposures to the results of a study before the implications become clear.

The meeting in Columbus was significant in that it represented a breakthrough in the process of uptake. Representatives from Jazz at Lincoln Center, Jazz St. Louis, Monterey Jazz Festival, SFJAZZ and other organizations reflected on the results of the study and were asked to generate ideas for “new or evolved practices that will regenerate the audience for jazz.” Instead of dwelling on all that ails the jazz field, we focused instead on identifying a small number of practices with the potential to move the field forward, such as:

  • Conceiving the next generation of jazz venues, including temporary uses of “found” spaces
  • Testing new business models for presenting jazz in intimate settings
  • New models for artist self-presentation
  • Developing programs that combine observational and participatory components
  • Programming and educational efforts that accelerate the social transmission of musical tastes
  • Linking the live audience experience with acquisition of recordings
  • Creating a marketplace for collaborative jazz programming, where artists, presenters and funders can coalesce around new projects
  • Developing new vocabulary and images that speak to different segments of the jazz audience.

I was inspired by the quality of thinking. Along with the research results, we will also disseminate the implications for practice – skipping a step in the typical process, and forging a stronger link between research and practice.

What it Really Means

September 13th, 2011

As a program evaluator, I am often asked to tell people what things “really mean.” This is invariably a cause for concern. I can, given reliable measures and conditions conducive to careful data collection, say with confidence that the scores on a battery of tasks were higher among a given sample of students after a program’s implementation than before. But does this “really mean” that the students were better at whatever activity those tests were meant to assess? I know what people want me to say; I am just reluctant to say it.

So imagine my relief upon reading an editorial that prompted me to recall the distinction between scientific realism and scientific instrumentalism. Scientific realists maintain that we have access to what has been called the noumenological world: the universe as it truly exists. Instrumentalists (of the scientific, rather than musical, variety) argue that our understanding is constricted to the phenomenological: the world as represented by our sensory perceptions. According to instrumentalism, the best that rational inquiry can do is to provide a framework for understanding our inherently limited observations of the world around us. Based on countless observations, we can predict that when we drop something it will fall. But does that “really mean” the object falls because of a force called gravity?

I am personally inclined to side with the realists in their appraisal of many areas of inquiry, but evaluation is not one of them. Nor, depending on whom you ask, is biology, chemistry, or physics. So, if evaluation is restricted to scientific instrumentalism, at least it has good company.

Researchers have long known that cultural activities have beneficial effects on human health and well-being (see Lea and Tom Wolf’s recent “Music and Health Care“), but the exact nature of the link is still largely unknown. The most recent release of the HUNT Study, a landmark public health research project by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, reveals that there may be a gender association between cultural participation and physical and mental health. The study notes that underneath the general positive relationship between cultural participation and life satisfaction, there is a significant gender difference in which activities correlated more strongly with “perceived health” (a self-reported measure of general healthiness). For men, participating more frequently in receptive, audience-based activities (e.g., attending museums, concerts, and theater) was linked to better health, while the same was true for women engaged in more creative participation (e.g., club meetings, dance, and music and theater performance).

The study admits there is insufficient information to determine a specific cause-effect relationship between cultural engagement and health outcomes (it speculates that such activity may reduce the negative effects of stress, blood pressure, and other factors for disease), but what is even more curious is why the effect would be different for men and women. The differences between the genders are diverse, but why would men and women engaged in the same physical and non-physical activity exhibit different health outcomes? There is at least some reason to propose the effect is rooted in psychology, or at least culturally normative behavior. Activities that align closely with personal values would tend to be more enjoyable and less stressful. This allows us to narrow the original question: is there a difference in what women and men fundamentally value that could account for this effect? Is it that men tend to appreciate the works of others, and absorbing new ideas in a receptive context satisfies that tendency, or that women intrinsically value their own contributions to others’ well-being?

Whatever the case, the effect certainly merits further inquiry, and demonstrates that the cultural sphere may be connected to public health in more complicated ways than we have imagined. Though the data is still too new to be used in planning or marketing capacities, I wonder how this could be applied in WolfBrown’s ongoing engagement studies, or in further elaboration of the specific instrumental benefits of arts participation.


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